Kabul Market; Profiling in Courage; Wahhabben?
I was in Oakland the day of President Bush's address to the nation. For lunch, a friend and I drove 20 miles down to Fremont, the biggest Afghan neighborhood in the country, just to see what the mood was like. We chose a kebab joint, about the size of a modest office cubicle, that had an American flag pasted in the window, and, bizarrely, a poster of that National Geographic cover from about 20 years ago with the hauntingly beautiful blue-eyed Afghan woman on it. You know the one I mean.
We sat down to a platter of some extraordinary Central Asian latkes whose name escapes me. They were fried to a crackly ochre on the outside, and mooshy with leeks and onions and potatoes on the inside. The old woman who was cooking them fried them up for us in a single throw-rug-sized mass, which she then chopped into two-dozen pieces, each of them about the size of a paperback book. This made me feel a bit better about the war. No nation that produces cooks like that can long remain unanimous in its enmity to a nation that produces gluttons like me?and vice versa.
On our table was one of those ethnic-neighborhood freebie weeklies?written in a loopy Arabic-style script that was probably Farsi or Pashto?called the Persian Cultural News. It had stories not just on Iran but on Afghanistan. Most of the paper was given over to advertisements for second-generation Americans who'd made it into the middle class?Hafez the dentist, Moaz the lawyer?and for restaurants like the one we were sitting in. The actual news, however (and the paper we were reading antedated the WTC attack), was not good at all. There were pictures of men hanging from lampposts and villages burnt to the ground. In all cases, they had the blurry, off-center look of pictures taken with a smuggled camera. You got the impression that these people were even less crazy about the Taliban than, say, Donald Rumsfeld is.
To sit in a restaurant like that is to realize two things. First, how sickening it is?even if it's perfectly understandable?that 240 Arab-Americans (with a few Persians and Sikhs thrown in by the undiscriminating discriminators) have been subjected either to assaults or insults since the World Trade Center attacks. And second, that our emerging military and diplomatic strategy, which seems to involve enlisting the more freedom-loving Muslims of the world against the fascistic Islam of the terrorists, is an extremely promising one.
Profiling in Courage
Whether or not last Thursday's speech is "maybe the greatest speech ever given by any president," as Virginia Sen. John Warner put it, is open to question. There were certainly a couple of false notes. For an instant, the President was reminiscent of his oratorically challenged father when he said, with a kind of Jimmy Durante winsomeness, "And you know what? We're not gonna allow it!" But my verdict on the speech is: Magnificent. For one thing, according to The Washington Post, it left 80 percent of Americans more confident about the justice of our cause and the prospects of our success, and only 4 percent less confident. For another, President Bush took exactly the right tone in excoriating those who would attack or contemn Arabs or Islam: "No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith." That's simple but perfect.
This does not mean, however, that there will be no singling out of Arabs for special scrutiny. This may be uncomfortable, but it is inevitable and necessary?and anyone who thinks the left-wing mewing about "racial profiling" has any credibility with the broader American public is deluding himself. It is in the nature of terrorist cells to disappear into the country they seek to blow up. And a 23-year-old Saudi, say, who spends his days transporting hazardous chemicals in and out of his apartment, cannot "disappear" into a town of 400 people in Vermont?and the residents of such towns will not long delay in notifying authorities.
So, very wisely, terrorists tend to live where they can blend in with law-abiding Arab-Americans: in Dearborn, MI; in Boston; in Jersey City; in South Florida. There's the three guys in Detroit who got hold of a couple LSG Sky Chefs ID cards. There's Nabil al-Marabh, also of Detroit, who got a permit to drive hazardous waste trucks and sought to have it duplicated several times. There are the big bin Laden-friendly cells in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. There were the 190 people on the FBI's watch list, many of whom had tickets on planes out of Boston last weekend. (This was probably a backup plan, so that if the cover on the Sept. 11 massacres had been blown in any way, the whole plan wouldn't have to be abandoned.) There's the guys in Florida who, led by the late Mohammed Atta of Flight 11 fame, tried to get their hands on a cropduster, for God-knows-what purpose.
In a climate where Americans are correct to be worried, the one surefire way to stoke anti-Arab vigilantism is to respond with outright bullshit. We can leave aside the pantywaist peace creeps of Moveon.org?to whom one can only say, "No?you move on." More serious are the pontifications of House Minority Leader Gephardt, who said on Crossfire last week, "I think to just assume that we have to target one group is a mistake. It's a mistake of reality. We don't know who did all of this. We don't know what ethnic group they may be part of. We don't know what religious background they may have." We don't? Do you think maybe those cockpit recordings of howls in Arabic give us a wee hint?
Playing make-believe with 20-year-old politically correct slogans is the best way to encourage people to take the law into their own hands. If you want to know what the American response to Arabs will look like if the Gephardt line prevails, read Jonathan Rieder's Canarsie?a tale of what happened to white attitudes toward racial harmony in the 1970s, when all levels of government conspired to pretend there was no black crime problem.
Even those who have behaved admirably, for the most part, are not thinking clearly. Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton visited a Louisville pizzeria to apologize for a series of e-mails that had falsely accused the owners of cheering when tv showed the skyscrapers collapsing. Patton announced, "We don't think singling people out because of their nationality or their religion or their race or any other characteristic is American." Any other characteristic? How about sympathy to terrorism? How's that for a characteristic?
Americans, in fact, are evenly split, 49 percent to 49 percent, on whether Arabs (including U.S. citizens!) should have to carry special IDs. This is less alarming than it sounds. Peggy Noonan is quite right to say, "Nothing like this has ever happened and we have nothing to compare it to." One respect in which our terrorist war is sui generis is that terrorism makes the groundswell of those willing to trade civil liberties for security considerably greater than it is even during a "normal" national emergency. Americans' willingness to strip Arabs of certain civil liberties is roughly at the same level as Americans' willingness to strip themselves of their own civil liberties. A Princeton poll shows that, by 39 to 34 percent, more American are worried that the government will fail to enact antiterrorist laws than are worried that such laws will be unduly tough.
It's too early to tell whether Arab-Americans?our very newest immigrants, after all?will have an easy or a hard time understanding this. On the one hand, the proclamations of support for the U.S. war effort coming out of the Arab community have been less than loud. On the other hand, the Utah-based Army Reserves?the nerve center for the country's military linguists?claim they're being "overwhelmed" by Arabic speakers volunteering for military intelligence work. The FBI has had, by its own account, an "overwhelming" response to its request for translators, too.
One of the unfortunate things about war that we all have to get used to is that its sacrifices do not fall randomly. The American victims of the Sept. 11 terrorism were almost all Northeasterners and Californians?but this doesn't mean that anyone in the Rocky Mountains is shirking his duty. Look at the list of the hundreds of firemen who perished, which has more Irishmen on it than you'd find in a medium-sized town in County Cork?this gives Irish-Americans a reason to mourn, but it doesn't give them a reason to gripe. The men who are going to risk their asses for us in the mountain passes of Central Asia are going to be disproportionately black and disproportionately Southern?but it's their job. Similarly, no one ought to complain if the resources of the FBI are concentrated on Arab neighborhoods in Michigan rather than on Italian ones in Rhode Island, or if a clutch of five college-aged Egyptian boys is searched at an airport checkpoint with considerably more rigor than a Chinese-American couple traveling with their grandchildren.
One strong point in the President's speech was his comparison of the terrorists to Nazis. It's a shame his father cheapened the metaphorical currency by calling Saddam Hussein "worse than Hitler" on the eve of the Gulf War, but the comparison is a good one. Like the Nazis, Middle Eastern terrorists are basically a collection of loosely unified criminal gangs with a scapegoat and a desire to take over the world. If anyone had said in 1929 that a few thousand thuggish, unemployed and poorly organized losers scattered around Germany would 12 years later not only control all of Western European territory but also be carrying out genocides on it, he'd've been laughed at. Take the terrorists seriously.
Last week, two journalists who know considerably more about Islam than I do?Stephen Schwartz in the rightish Spectator of London and Christopher Hitchens on the leftish Nation's website?found the roots of this movement in Saudi-based Wahhabism, the two-century-old schismatic sect that believes that, ever since its first glorious century, Islam has been corrupted by the West and is going to hell in a handbasket.
The best description I've seen of Wahhabism is the one given by the Dallas Morning News' Jeffrey Weiss: "It was as if a Christian suggested that Augustine and Aquinas and every later Christian theologian were heretics. Or as if an Orthodox Jewish scholar challenged the validity of the Talmud." Certainly some subtle thinking and some stable communities have come out of Wahhabism. But so has most of the terrorism we know of. Schwartz draws the distinction that, while few Wahhabis are terrorists, most terrorists are Wahhabis. Hitchens says they practice "fascism with an Islamic face." These are the people who chop off the legs of women who show them and will blow a man's brains out if they catch him reading, say, Time.
And if Hitchens and Schwartz are right, the implications for our coziness with the Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia are not very good. The Saudi reluctance to let the United States use military bases that it has largely paid for is a rather distressing sign in that regard. As for the $5 billion Binladin Group's continued ability to profit from the Saudi Arabian Snapple concession, which it controls?well, that might be the most uncertain thing of all.
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